Sunday, May 5, 2013

Editing today

I was asked for advice on becoming a book editor, and of course, as a young friend calls me, I'm the dreamkiller. I go around being "realistic" and/or "negative" and killing people's dreams. It's a thankless job, but maybe someone will thank me someday. SO THIS IS JUST MY OWN EXPERIENCE! OTHERS MIGHT BE FAR MORE POSITIVE AND HELPFUL!

Anyway, there aren't many editing jobs in the old traditional ways, frankly. New York is full of laid-off book editors. So most now are working free-lance, doing copy editing, proofreading, rather than acquiring and taking a book into production for a publishing company. (Those jobs still exist, but there aren't as many as in the heyday of the 90s. It will help, no doubt, to be young and cheap and willing to live in an outer borough.)

As for me, my advice to a student thinking of a career in editing who still wants one even if there aren't many jobs in the traditional book publishing sense:
1. Absolutely take a couple advanced grammar classes, especially those which deal with syntax, if you're going to be doing mostly actual editing (and not the whole book acquisition-production process). Editing is a valuable skill, and in some demand, but you really have to understand how written communication works to fix it when it doesn't. 
2. Get familiar with the sort of editing required for web-based writing (like websites), as that's where much of the work is going to be. If I were going to do it all over again, I'd study document design too-- not coding, really, but laying out the text on a page, choosing graphics, all that, just like they used to do for magazines.
3. Free-lance editors generally work for authors, not publishers, and on a free-lance basis (no benefits, no guarantee). That is, the authors are trying to get the book ready for submission to a publisher, or ready to self-publish. You have no power to say, "This is good enough" or "You're rejected." You have to work with what they send you. This requires a level of interpersonal skill that equals the level of technical skill required.   Most authors think what they write is wonderful, and maybe it's not, but they're the boss. You have to make it as good as you can, knowing that often you're not going to end up with a great book. And you have to "fix" without being critical. It's a lot harder than editing used to be, when editors could just reject books they didn't think were good enough.

The breakdown for types of editing, from an author's perspective:
There's the story (content or main) editing, which identifies problems in the story structure, like that the hero tends to whine and the heroine sometimes acts irrationally, and that there are these two big scenes that
ought to pack a punch and don't, and that there are three endings and no beginning. This will be examining things like motivation, logic,conflict, and drama. Plot, character, structure, scene, sequence.
There's the line-editing, where prose problems are identified and fixed, particularly on the sentence and paragraph level-- things like making all those darned one-sentence paragraphs into, you know, actual paragraphs; and determining which fragments add to the conversational aspect of the voice and which just annoy; and replacing static and vague verbs with stronger ones. This is probably the most time-consuming aspect, and the one most likely to result in conflict, because this very much involves the author voice.
There's copy-editing, which is where the Chicago Manual comes in. :) This is the step that readies the manuscript for publication, where grammar mistakes are rectified if they weren't in the line edit, where potential mistakes are identified ("Didn't she have blue eyes in Chapter 2?"), formatting is standardized (all chapter headings the same), and research is questioned and checked. 
Then of course, there's proofreading, to find and fix typos, duplicated or dropped words, formatting errors.
The last two are what authors often seem to think are "editing," and yet,when they come to an editor, they aren't clear about that being all they want. I recently was talking to a writer who said that she wanted her
book "edited" and was shocked when I said for a "full edit" she'd be looking at maybe 5 cents a word. (Of course, many editors work for much less.) As we talked, though, I realized she only wanted copy-editing and proofing, which don't do much to change the story or voice. She didn't WANT to change the story or voice, and so shouldn't go out and hire someone who is going to make a bunch of suggestions she won't want to follow. (Whether she ought to make big changes is another story... but it's her book, and she should decide.)
As writers, we should get to know our process, and our strengths and weaknesses before we send the book out.  And an editor is sometimes not what we need to help us with those weaknesses. Probably most writers do need a copy-edit and proofread, just because those involve fairly arcane decisions and training, and it's next to impossible to do that close a reading of our own work. But not all need story-editing. Not all need line-editing. I would say I don't actually need line-editing, as I'm pretty strong on the prose level. But
I can never tell when the tension has dropped in my plotting, or when I love characters a tad too much so that readers will be alienated. So at the story level, I often need help, which is why I have a great critique
group, and brainstorm a lot with several discerning friends. 
Great storytellers are not always great writers. But a great storyteller probably doesn't need a content editor-- she already has good "story grammar," knowing how to pace and dramatize and characterize. She might need help, however, making the prose match the story.
"Wordsmiths" might not need much line-editing, as they already experiment and edit sentences as they write. They might, however, benefit from story-editing, because they can't always see the big picture of plot and
character and scene. 

Free-lance editors have to get authors to state what editing they want, and they're in charge because they're paying.
I work mostly free lance these days, but of course those who work for a publisher or a company are having different experiences (and probably vacation and sick time too).


David Y.B. Kaufmann said...

Good advice, good analysis of the editing process. (I shared the link across social media.) Thanks.

Linda Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda Taylor said...

Great advice! Thanks for the emphasis on grammar. It's so important. I think too many people hang out a shingle to do editing without realizing (1) there are different types of editing and (2) it takes training in grammar to do it well. I teach an editing class at a university and we go over all those different types of editing and what each involves. So important. Thanks for the great advice.